More than 55 million smartphones shipped during the first three months of 2010.

Although that represents a drop of about one million compared to Q4-2009 seasonal sales cycles always produce lower results in the first quarter of any year compared to the previous quarter. Apple and Nokia, however, actually grew sales in Q1 2010.

Apple unleashed its iPhone 4 smartphone yeaterday to a hyped up community.

“Normally we would see a much greater decline in shipments in the first quarter; the fact that the drop was so relatively small highlights the continuing dynamic growth of the smartphone market,” said senior ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan.

Much of the fastest growth is being seen in markets previously little penetrated by expensive, cutting-edge smartphones. With new less expensive models becoming available, the global market is becoming much more diverse.

For example Nokia smartphone shipments rose quarter-on-quarter from 20.8 million to 21.5 million despite the usual quarterly decline, building on an explosive last quarter of 2009 which saw the firm’s smartphone shipments expand 25 percent.

Apple iPhone 4

This was largely on the strength of Nokia’s new models such as the “C” and “X” lines that are really experience-focused, lower-cost smartphones that directly address those newer markets. Nokia has a history of success in lower-cost feature phone markets, but until recently their smartphone lineup was exclusively high-end.

“These are not ‘iPhone-killers’,” notes Morgan. “They’re simpler, lower-end devices, not bleeding-edge top-of-the-line technologies, but they can still deliver satisfying social networking and other basic smartphone experiences.”

Apple iPhone shipments rose slightly, from 8.7 to 8.8 million, partly on the back of strong performance in  markets such as Japan and China.

Morgan believes that “The smartphone market as a whole was probably buoyed by improving first quarter holiday season demand from the Asia-Pacific region.”